AFC Playoff Picture: Breaking down the Titans wild Week 17 range of potential outcomes

The Titans letdown against the Packers on Sunday Night Football still stings several days later, and worse, it has left fans staring down the barrel of another stressful regular season finale. For the fourth straight season, Tennessee enters Week 17 with a chance to play their way in or out of the postseason. However, unlike previous years, their paths into the playoffs are many and the road to an early vacation is extremely narrow.

So let’s take a minute to go through the scenarios that could play out on what is sure to be a wild Sunday afternoon.

AFC South Race

A Titans win in Houston would make Tennessee the AFC South division champs for the first time since 2008, ending their longest dry spell in the history of the division. So would a Colts loss to Jacksonville, but obviously, the Titans shouldn’t find much comfort in the thought of relying on the 1-14 Jaguars to help them over the finish line.

Both games will be played simultaneously so the Titans will take the field playing under the assumption that they need a win to secure the division and the home playoff game that comes with it. Coming off an embarrassing performance in Green Bay, I understand some of the anxiety that comes with a trip to Houston to face Deshaun Watson, but let’s also pump the brakes on handing this game to the Texans just yet. This team is 4-11 for a reason and is coming off a home loss to the 4-10-1 Bengals. The four wins for Houston in 2020? Jacksonville twice, Detroit on Thanksgiving, and New England. The version of the Texans that pushed the Titans to overtime three months ago is now without Justin Reid, Will Fuller, Kenny Stills, Randall Cobb, and Brandon Dunn among others. This is a game that Tennessee should win.

The Doomsday Scenario

Okay, so it’s a lot easier to talk about the way that the Titans could miss the playoffs than it is to list off the many ways that they could get in. The lone path to devastation on Sunday requires all four of the following things to happen:

  1. Titans lose to Texans.
  2. Colts beat Jaguars.
  3. Dolphins beat Bills.
  4. Ravens beat Bengals.

Obviously, items two and four are pretty likely to happen, but the other two games are toss ups even in the most pessimistic fan’s eyes. That could change a bit if the Bills decide to rest their starters against Miami though. Currently, Buffalo holds the 2-seed in the AFC, but a loss to the Dolphins combined with a Steelers win against the Browns would drop them down to the 3-seed and potentially flip the location of a second-round matchup between the Steelers and Bills from Buffalo to Pittsburgh.

The Steelers announcing that they would be starting Mason Rudolph on Sunday probably nudges Sean McDermott in the direction of giving the game to Matt Barkley, which is unfortunate for the Titans. If the Bills decide to fully pack it in, Tennessee’s path out of the playoff becomes far more realistic.

Potential Playoff Matchups

However, that brings me to a bit of a conundrum for Titans fans. Wins for both Tennessee and Miami on Sunday would bring the Dolphins to Nissan Stadium for a wildcard round playoff matchup.

With all due respect to the incredible job that Brian Flores has done to get Miami to this point, I think it’s fair to say that Miami is a dream matchup for Tennessee. They’re two months removed from their last 30-point offensive performance and Tua Tagovailoa struggled tremendously in his last outing against an even-worse-than-Tennessee Raiders defense. Yes, they have a top notch defense, but I feel better about the Titans scoring on a tough defense than I do about the defense stopping a good offense.

Miami is pretty comfortably the most likely potential first-round matchup for the Titans right now. The next most likely is a rematch with the Ravens. If you go ahead and say that the Ravens and Colts are going to win their matchups, the other matchup that seems plausible is a trip to Pittsburgh. That scenario would happen if the Bills, Steelers, Ravens, Texans, and Colts all won on Sunday.

Frankly, none of those matchups bad for the Titans. The Ravens are playing the best football of that group right now, but we’ve seen how Tennessee matches up against Baltimore. That’s not to say the Titans would win a third straight meeting, but it’s certainly not a poor matchup for them. However, I definitely think that Miami would be preferable.

If you want to take a look at all the potential scenarios, here they are in a easy to read format:

The Bottom Line

FiveThirtyEight still has the Titans making the playoffs in 94% of their simulations. That doesn’t factor in the possibility of the Bills resting their starters, but even if you adjust for an automatic Miami win, Tennessee still gets in 78% of the time.

However, all those numbers and simulations shouldn’t matter to the Titans. Their task is simple… beat a bad Texans team and take the AFC South. Despite J.J. Watt’s frustrated rant about playing for the fans despite being 4-11, this feels like a Houston team that will fold up if the Titans punch them in the mouth early.

The dream scenario would be to get up big early and be able to pull Derrick Henry and other key starters to start saving their legs for the playoff game, but obviously the first priority is to go get the win.

If they do that, they’ll likely be hosting either the Dolphins or Ravens next week for the first home playoff game in Nashville since 2008.

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